climate-change-storytelling-foreign-policy-illustration
Foreign Policy illustration

Essay

The Tragedy of Stopping Climate Change

The race is on to tell—or sell—the right story about global warming.

As nations everywhere struggle to decide how best to salvage Earth, perhaps it’s only to be expected that our global generalized anxiety disorder has reached the fever pitch of a writer under deadline: How should the plot to save the world proceed?

The 2051 Munich Climate Conference, organized by the Munich-based Büro Grandezza theater troupe and hosted by the Bellevue di Monaco center for refugees, met in September of this year to reverse-engineer an answer to this question. The conference invited scholars from around the world to present on climate attitudes in 2021 as if it were 30 years in the future, exactly one year after the carbon neutrality deadline set by the Paris Agreement. Such a unique call for papers promised an event at once wholly academic and wholly “fictional.” As Andreas Kohn, a founding member of Büro Grandezza, told me over Zoom a few days before I arrived for the gathering, the basic structure of the conference-cum-performance amounted to an urgent thought experiment in 20/20 hindsight: In 2051 people will look back on what we knew about curbing emissions and say, "Why didn't they do that?’”

In the popular imagination, projections of climate futures tend to fall into one of two categories: utopia or dystopia. The fictional framework of the 2051 Munich Climate Conference is of a piece with a recent swell of interest in reshaping the public imagination for climate adaptation in ways that break through existing cliches, broadening the range of outcomes to include the vast gradient of possibilities that fall between extremes. Climate scientists have been marching more or less to the same, urgent drumbeat since the 1960s, when the first conclusive reports linking fossil fuels to the greenhouse effect were published. The discourse about how that science should be communicated, however, has taken a decisive turn. As part of a greater trend toward storytelling in the social and hard sciences in general, the emphasis has shifted from pumping the public with facts to furnishing voters with actionable climate narratives.

As nations everywhere struggle to decide how best to salvage Earth, perhaps it’s only to be expected that our global generalized anxiety disorder has reached the fever pitch of a writer under deadline: How should the plot to save the world proceed?

The 2051 Munich Climate Conference, organized by the Munich-based Büro Grandezza theater troupe and hosted by the Bellevue di Monaco center for refugees, met in September of this year to reverse-engineer an answer to this question. The conference invited scholars from around the world to present on climate attitudes in 2021 as if it were 30 years in the future, exactly one year after the carbon neutrality deadline set by the Paris Agreement. Such a unique call for papers promised an event at once wholly academic and wholly “fictional.” As Andreas Kohn, a founding member of Büro Grandezza, told me over Zoom a few days before I arrived for the gathering, the basic structure of the conference-cum-performance amounted to an urgent thought experiment in 20/20 hindsight: In 2051 people will look back on what we knew about curbing emissions and say, “Why didn’t they do that?’”

In the popular imagination, projections of climate futures tend to fall into one of two categories: utopia or dystopia. The fictional framework of the 2051 Munich Climate Conference is of a piece with a recent swell of interest in reshaping the public imagination for climate adaptation in ways that break through existing cliches, broadening the range of outcomes to include the vast gradient of possibilities that fall between extremes. Climate scientists have been marching more or less to the same, urgent drumbeat since the 1960s, when the first conclusive reports linking fossil fuels to the greenhouse effect were published. The discourse about how that science should be communicated, however, has taken a decisive turn. As part of a greater trend toward storytelling in the social and hard sciences in general, the emphasis has shifted from pumping the public with facts to furnishing voters with actionable climate narratives.

Evidence of the storytelling shift is now everywhere discussions of climate change are found. The Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Dan Fagin has argued that storytelling is part of the solution to the climate crisis and that journalism about it needs to be packaged “in the form of a story, in the form of narrative, with characters, drama, and a connecting thread.” Political scientists, economists, and sociologists also increasingly place climate change in the context of the meaning-making narratives by which societies organize themselves. In Climate Change and Storytelling, Annika Arnold of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation situates climate narratives amid overwhelming evidence that climate adaptation will require cultural change, media coherence, and sidestepping the public paralysis that apocalyptic stories and images promote. A 2017 edition of the journal Energy Research & Social Science devoted an entire issue to “Using stories, narratives, and storytelling in energy and climate change research.” This emphasis on narrative and imagination has trickled from academia into popular discourse by way of public exhibitions like the one in Munich and by way of policymakers who have begun to listen; in 2016, the German Advisory Council on Global Change put these ideas into practice in its outline for a “normative compass” promoting cultural cohesion in matters of nature management and economic inequality.

The consensus couldn’t be clearer: The world is far behind emissions goals, and the right narratives can help to bridge the gap. As a novelist myself, this fascinates me. The greatest challenge of the century has been framed as a kind of writer’s block: What kind of story should we tell? And just how tragic or extreme does it need to be?


Coral and mangrove grows at the protected Bunaken Island Marine National Park in Manado on May 14, 2006.

Coral and mangrove grows at the protected Bunaken Island Marine National Park in Manado on May 14, 2006. Foreign Policy illustration/ROMEO GACAD/AFP via Getty Images

On the first day of the 2051 climate conference, Munich epitomized the spatial-temporal paradox that makes motivating energy transformation so difficult: The skies were clear; the sun was out; balmy temperatures drew brunchgoers out to sidewalk cafes and picnic blankets, and yours truly into a pharmacy for a travel-sized bottle of sunscreen. Though devastating floods had ravaged southern Germany only a few months prior, on this mild afternoon, imminent disaster could not have seemed farther away.

The conference was organized around the key emissions target set by the Paris Agreement—to restrict global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius—which tends to map to the kind of binary thinking reflected in popular climate narratives. On the first day, presenters spoke from a dystopic 2051 where the world had surpassed the 1.5- or even 2-degree mark; on the second, they heralded from a far rosier future where emissions had been curbed. The dystopian version of 2051 saw the Maldives sink underwater and feasible adaptation strategies thwarted by populist political opportunism; in the more optimistic version, residents of American Samoa had successfully sued oil companies to fund climate adaptation efforts, and carbon capture had proved itself a cost-effective silver bullet. The fact that these scientists were speaking to us from any future at all suggested that, in either world, some iteration of civilized life had survived.

The range of presentations shed light on why talk of “reimagining” climate change can feel so attractive.

The range of presentations shed light on why talk of “reimagining” climate change can feel so attractive. (Indeed, one of the better-attended talks on the first afternoon was titled “The transformative potential of sociological imagination for eco-social change.”) As a voter, and in the face of overwhelming ecological uncertainty, it’s hard not to feel as if you’ve taken a seat at a craps table, and even then that someone else is rolling the dice. Hypothetical accounts of 2051 breathe reality into a variety of potential policy pathways, making an unstable and seemingly distant future less abstract.

Notably, the most engaging of those accounts—like most engaging 20th-century novels—tended to focus on national, as opposed to global, frameworks. In “Locked-in: Revisiting coastal adaptation policies in the Maldives,” Geronimo Gussmann, a sociologist at Humboldt University in Berlin specializing in oceanographic adaptation, historicized the resilience and innovation of a Maldivian people whose chance for climate preparedness had slipped through the cracks of politicians’ opportunism. Forgone solutions included planting mangrove forests, building sea walls, and diverting resources to the islands most in need, rather than to the islands most likely to vote for a particular candidate. Another performance by the English artist Nico Powell took the form of letters to newspaper advice columnists, and was delivered from a future where a stagnant Gulf Stream has left England under a permanent gray cloud, and automation and fear have eliminated the need for citizens to ever leave their homes. (The COVID-19 lockdown is itself increasingly a reference point for possible climate futures.) These imagined pathways—which also featured some of the best role-playing of the sessions I saw—rested on specificity and detail, on ethical nuance, and, crucially, on problems dramatized at the national, as opposed to global, scale.

Throughout the presentations, scholars became characters of themselves. They spoke of the research they were doing “back in 2021,” revised their ages, referred to their creaking joints. They were acting—and not without a hint of irony. No wonder: In many ways, they were also adopting the perspective of the literary climate novel or the Hollywood disaster film, works of fiction set in ecologically altered futures that explore the dystopian or utopian consequences of environmental neglect. As with any modeling exercise, adapting the techniques and assumptions of a discipline like fiction-making to the purpose of extrapolating real-world outcomes—and climate change narratives have an especially pressing mandate to do so—is a tricky business. The results can be confusing, even fraught. During a Q&A with another scholar who’d called for more abstract renovations of the “eco-sociological imagination,” Gussmann broke character to pose an impassioned query of his own: “But who are we telling these stories to? The public? Multinational corporations? Who is the ‘we’?” The silence that followed marked one of those moments when fiction can begin to strain against the urgency of the real.

Gussmann’s question touched on a problem perennial to all storytellers in a globalized moment. Narratives thrive on the specificity of national and local communities (nationalists, of course, have also been known to leverage the power of storytelling); climate change, by contrast, is terrifyingly global. But for a phenomenon that so readily invites imaginative extremes, equally challenging for climate storytellers is the question of how such narratives ought to end. There is overwhelming evidence that apocalyptic alarmism and utopic techno-optimism alike fail to foster necessary change, instead engendering public paralysis and procrastination. And according to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, it is also no longer possible to avoid measurable effects of climate change. While there is still a great deal that humans can and must do, those activities might in fact be best framed in terms of avoiding extremes: We have entered the mitigation phase.

And mitigation can pose a problem, as far as climate storytelling goes. Falling short of either overwhelming victory or disaster, mitigation narratives aim to capture a global audience with the varieties of tragedy that lie in between. When was the last time you saw a blockbuster premiere under the tagline “Well, it could have been worse…”?


Water runs down the melting Northern Schneeferner glacier into a small lake on the Zugspitze plateau near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on on Sept. 8, 2020.

Water runs down the melting Northern Schneeferner glacier into a small lake on the Zugspitze plateau near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on on Sept. 8, 2020. Foreign Policy illustration/Sean Gallup/Getty Images

“All of writing is a huge lake,” the British novelist Jean Rhys reportedly told a friend. “There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake.” From the social sciences to marketing studies, the call for narrative often evokes Rhys’s literary sensibility: We are each a little tributary to the collective sea of human experience.

With the rise of digital advertising, however, literary storytelling has ceded ground to corporate strategists who borrow the language and techniques of spinning yarns in order to sell: All that matters is here is real-world outcomes. In the digital space, businesses and individuals have become brands, moving beyond satisfying basic consumer needs and desires to inviting prospective buyers to join their stories. As the self-fashioned marketing guru Joe Pulizzi wrote in a widely distributed 2012 paper “The Rise of Storytelling as the New Marketing,” “Who would have ever guessed that the future of marketing is, in fact, not marketing at all, but publishing?” The most famous adman of the 20th century, David Ogilvy, laid the groundwork for marketing-as-publishing with his “soft sell” approach; by leveraging nuanced narrative to entertain consumers and hold attention, the salesperson forgoes the immediate transaction today to influence long-term buying habits tomorrow. The “hard sell,” by contrast, goes in for the impulse buy and favors alarmist, insistent language. You might say that the discourse on climate change storytelling has recently undergone a shift from hard sell to soft.

With the rise of digital advertising, however, literary storytelling has ceded ground to corporate strategists who borrow the language and techniques of spinning yarns in order to sell.

There’s a reason that the kind of storyteller interested in motivating action—to buy a ticket, to make a purchase, to support a political cause—is attracted to narrating extremes. Narratives of disaster or the victory of good over evil unfold according to simplified moral schema and in realms beyond individual control; support comes easily because the villains and the heroes are made clear, as are the stakes for the reader. Any practitioner of fiction aiming for rapid, popular, emotional engagement might therefore wonder about the dramatic potential of mitigation as a narrative arc. Novelists call this a problem of content and form: The formal narrative structures that seem best equipped to capture the public eco-imagination—dystopian thrillers, techno-utopias, ad campaigns, or policy platforms promising instant gratification—aren’t necessarily those best suited to describing the potential realities we face. This is a recipe for writer’s block indeed.

Climate change is not without its own streamlined moral schema. Oil companies and politicians who actively lobby against energy transformation really do serve the world a serious evil, while inspiration for climate activism is claimed by new technologies and the young. From this view, the ethics of energy transformation seem rather straightforward after all. In the kickoff session to the 2051 Munich Climate Conference, keynote speaker Saleemul Huq, a climate scientist and the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, imagined that a world of mitigated climate change will have young people, fossil fuel-free economic development, and the leadership of women and people of color to thank. Who could argue against the social and ecological value of that future or the redistributed decision-making power it portends? And yet, one suspects that between the oil companies and the charismatic, ambitious new generation of leaders on which we might hang our hopes, there lies a large, diverse sector of the global population for whom climate adaptation will not feel like an immediate victory: In no successful ecological future can a coal worker in West Virginia or South Africa keep their job; in no climate future will citizens of low-lying atoll islands like the Maldives or American Samoa evade an existential threat to their national sovereignty and physical survival. A more complex narrative anticipates long-term, achievable success while also recognizing the short-term pain that attends economic transformation.

When I asked Büro Grandezza about the role of mitigation narratives that clear space for outcomes falling somewhere in between wholesale victory and disaster, there was some reluctance to accept the implication that more sanguine futures have been foreclosed. “I don’t think that we need to think about the in-between,” Kohn said, “because I think at the moment we are only telling this story.” He emphasized that staying under 1.5 degrees Celsius is still technically possible, only “nobody seems to believe it will happen.” The goal of the second day of the conference, he emphasized, was to make that 1.5 degree scenario credible without glossing social inequities. After a pause, however, his colleague Christiane Pfau added, “It’s good for some, it’s bad for others. And that is somehow dystopic and utopic at the same time.”


A 1794 engraving of King Lear.

A 1794 engraving of King Lear. Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If marketing narratives are explicitly designed to incite targeted action (the sale) and reshape reality (consumer perceptions), literary fictions, by contrast—and to borrow a concept from the novelist Henry James—tend to exist in competition with reality. With such an urgent need to change course on climate, what could an approach prioritizing aesthetics over action possibly have to add?

In the effort to loot existing narrative modes for a climate match, one quasi-literary narrative model that has emerged is the Narrative Policy Framework, which argues that scientific data and facts ought to be presented to the public enmeshed in narratives that tell the story of policy pathways. The framework includes four main elements: characters (victims, villains, and heroes), a political setting in which a problem is contextualized, a moral presented in the form of a solution to the political problem, and a plot linking these elements through relations of cause and effect. It’s a welcome innovation that should and is being introduced in real-world situations.

But it might also be useful to recall that for the modern fiction writer, over and above paradigms of character, setting, moral, and plot, the craft of storytelling comes down to the art of managing reader expectations. In writing workshops, this idea of managing expectations is a veritable cliche. It carries through to other well-worn tropes, such as the idea that a story’s end ought to be both inevitable and surprising: inevitable insofar as we expected something like it to come along; surprising in that the denouement undercuts those expectations just enough to keep the finale from seeming predetermined or contrived. The explanatory power of these stories lies not in furnishing actionable, real-world purpose (truth and beauty, James argued, are “purpose enough”), but in modeling how we prepare ourselves for, and make sense of, endings that cannot possibly be predicted.

Frank Kermode’s A Sense of an Ending, now considered one of the most important works of Western literary criticism of the 20th century, argued that all literature, diverse as it is, bears the trace of the ancient human desire to “make sense” of endings, in particular of the apocalypse. This long-standing need to anticipate and negotiate crisis through narrative is reflected in the history of our fictional frameworks, which, like scientific models, are continually updated as our understanding of the world evolves. As humans began to recognize their own historical agency, narratives drifted away from paradigmatic, ancient story structures of the apocalypse—the Bible, the myth—to embrace uncircumscribed structures that sidestep any resolution at all; “they have become more ‘open,’” Kermode writes. The argument here is that apocalypse is no longer viewed as “imminent,” a conclusion to be anticipated, but “immanent,” a permanent state “stretched” across the present; it has already arrived in the form of genocide, the hydrogen bomb, ecological crisis. This clears a wide, unpredictable space for what lies ahead, given that we’re already living “in the middest” of extremes.

“In their general character our fictions have certainly moved away from the simplicity of the paradigm,” Kermode writes. And loosening those genre conventions fundamentally changes the narrative experience for reader and writer both. The reader has fewer genre cues to set expectations from the get-go, while the writer, meanwhile, bears the responsibility of discovering new narrative forms that prepare the reader for a more moderate kind of close—one that concludes the story but not, necessarily, the narrative world. As an example, consider that the reader of a classical tragedy knows the play must end in a death even before they open the text. What we tend to call modern literature, by contrast, has fewer signposts. The writer has to teach the reader how to read the plot from scratch, incorporating a “sense of an ending” into every stage of the story.

That the reader isn’t able to fully anticipate the bloody culmination or even explicate its significance is part of what lends the play its quality of truth.

The American critic Francine Prose recalls discovering the power of managing reader expectations in this way during a school exercise in which she was asked to track the mention of eyes in Shakespeare’s King Lear, leading up to the famous scene where Gloucester’s own are gouged: “[T]he language of vision and its opposite was preparing us, consciously or unconsciously, for those violent mutilations.” The gore is shocking when it arrives—yet in retrospect, it’s clear Shakespeare took care to prepare us for this outcome all along. That the reader isn’t able to fully anticipate the bloody culmination or even explicate its significance is part of what lends the play its quality of truth. The more a story imitates the contingencies and unpredictability of real life, the more it seems to belong, Kermode says, to one of those tales “which, by upsetting the ordinary balance of our naïve expectations, is finding something out for us, something real.

Perhaps one of the reasons climate change is so difficult to “make sense” of through narrative is that this most modern of crises so clearly reflects ancient structures of apocalyptic prophecy. Business-as-usual climate models predict the end of the world quite as literally and conclusively as medieval Christendom’s anticipation of the Second Coming of A.D. 1000. This prophetic structure—backed, like earlier prophecies, by experts and data—invites intuitive, ancient story arcs that dramatize the exploitative dynamic between godlike powers and human mortals. At the same time, climate change couldn’t be more contemporary, nor could the attitude needed to avert its most terrifying manifestations; preparing ourselves for less tragic endings requires the open-endedness of continual compromise.

A few weeks after the Munich conference, I found myself on a Zoom seminar hosted by the Climate Transparency Report discussing how much the World Bank ought to lend a coal-dependent, middle-income, segregated country like South Africa, where some 80,000 miners—most of them living in rural districts, most of them Black—stand to lose their jobs. It is far too costly to keep coal plants open—and yet to close them also comes with costs.

The modern novel models this kind of modern consciousness, one whose expectations are tied not so much to foreclosed temporal ends but to the negotiation of a present in permanent crisis: How hard are these characters’ lives going to be in the immediate term? The world did not end in A.D. 1000, just as it did not end on so many other occasions it was supposed to have. Even still, “Apocalypse can be disconfirmed without being discredited,” Kermode writes. The raison d’être of modern literature, maybe, is precisely to disconfirm apocalyptic narratives, so comforting in their simplicity and yet terrifying in their finality. The End will always wield authority over the human imagination, but combating the attitude of knowingness that frames it as imminent clears space for the anxious-making range of outcomes where life, in fact, goes on.


Polar bears feed at a garbage dump near the village of Belushya Guba, on the remote Russian northern Novaya Zemlya archipelago, on Oct. 31, 2018.

Polar bears feed at a garbage dump near the village of Belushya Guba, on the remote Russian northern Novaya Zemlya archipelago, on Oct. 31, 2018. Foreign Policy illustration/ALEXANDER GRIR/AFP via Getty Images

So, how do you sell compromise? I went into the Munich Climate Conference as a novelist expecting to write about exercises in imagining varieties of tragedy. The longer I spent in 2051, the more I became convinced that what we are after here isn’t storytelling at all, but marketing. The more important that question of audience action is for the story you’re telling, the more it seems to me that we move from “feeding the lake” to pushing action in the real world—in particular, to selling people on short-term costs for long-term gains.

This isn’t to say that writers, novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights don’t think about audience, activism, or real-world outcomes. Quite to the contrary: Büro Grandezza’s interventionist theater methods intentionally blur the line between political activism and art. As member Benno Heisel said of the troupe’s own artistic relationship to the 2051 conference, “It is an arts project, because that’s what we do. However, the starting point and the goal of the project are political ideas.” But while artists may be politically motivated, most do not tell stories with the primary aim of influencing the audience’s behavior or spending patterns in specific, measurable, and reproduceable ways. Even the climate novelist, journalist, and activist Kim Stanley Robinson, whose recent novel The Ministry for the Future is perhaps one of the most popular examples of climate mitigation narratives to date, has said that above all, he sets out “first, to write a good novel.” A salesperson, by contrast, is motivated solely to persuade you to buy—or buy into—something you never previously imagined. They tell stories not merely to captivate but to persuade.

When I asked a young father attending the first day of the conference if the morning’s sessions had inspired any hope, he reached for Franz Kafka: “He said something about how there’s plenty of hope, just not for us.”

And yet, there is something fundamentally dissatisfying, if not inappropriate, in importing the corporate strategist’s point of view wholesale. The ethical complexities of energy transformation extend up and down social and class hierarchies at the national and global scales, complicating the roles of protagonist and antagonist, and inviting uncathartic limbos—mitigation requires enduring what novelists call “peripeteia,” or sudden reversals in fortunes, which energy transition will require. Perhaps that’s why novels kept coming up at the Munich conference. “In order for everything to stay the same, everything has to change,” the climate economist Michael Pahle paraphrased from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a modern Italian classic of a decadent Sicilian family in decline. When I asked a young father attending the first day of the conference if the morning’s sessions had inspired any hope, he reached for Franz Kafka: “He said something about how there’s plenty of hope, just not for us.”

Luckily, it isn’t the job of a storyteller to provide hope but simply to aim for truth—or at least so says Henry James. The collective writer’s block for climate narratives might therefore seem less insurmountable if the goal is scaled back from saving the life on Earth to providing credible models for how humans manage expectations in a world that has profoundly disappointed them—first by repeatedly disconfirming the arrival of imminent apocalypse, then by allowing apocalypse to slip in nevertheless through the back door of the present and, furthermore, to distribute its effects so unequally. Climate change is one of the greatest regressive taxes the world has ever faced. For policymakers who find themselves in the uncomfortable position of drafting plots to solve it while still remaining open to a range of mitigation efforts, a good place to start might be promising to minimize losses for those who will be required to give something up. This likely means selling us on the truth: In the short term, some will lose.

“The consumer is not a moron,” Ogilvy famously said, in what turned out to be the best sales pitch the soft sell ever had.


Here’s how a novelist might tell a story about rapidly changing course: If you ever take the 6:37 p.m. train from the Berlin Südkreuz railway station to Munich, as I did to attend the 2051 conference, you should know that it splits in Leipzig. One half goes on to Munich; the other, to Jena, a city hundreds of miles to the north. If you choose the wrong half, you’re in for a long night.

To correct my mistake, I backtracked to a regional hub where I could catch another high-speed train. En route, I met a young doctor from Mexico looking to make the same connection. We talked about vaccines. We talked about Haruki Murakami fan fiction. (He’d written some.) Our regional train was delayed, and the transfer would be tight. A third passenger walked up and down the aisles, looking for a conductor who might call ahead. Didn’t anybody work here? Who the hell was in charge? As we pulled into the station and shouldered our bags, readying ourselves to sprint, I joked, “Wer als Erster kommt an, halte die Tür auf.

Whoever gets there first, hold the door.

Jessi Jezewska Stevens is a writer of fiction and criticism. She is the author of The Exhibition of Persephone Q and the forthcoming novel The Visitors.

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